Termites (Nasutitermes sp.). Image by Bernard Dupont, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Hong Kong study reveals a key role for termites

29 May 2024

A recent study by the University of Hong Kong has revealed the significant role of invertebrates, particularly termites, in global forest litter decomposition. This process is crucial for carbon cycling and nutrient turnover.

Traditionally, microbes such as bacteria and fungi have been considered the primary decomposers in nature. However, this study highlights that soil invertebrates contribute a large proportion of decomposition and nutrient turnover, making them vital for healthy ecosystems.

The research team, led by Dr Louise Ashton, conducted a meta-analysis of 476 case studies from 93 sites worldwide. The results showed that invertebrates contributed 31% to global forest litter decomposition. Interestingly, the contribution of soil invertebrates in tropical and subtropical forests was 1.4 times higher than that in temperate and boreal forests.

Termites, though often viewed only as pests, are important ecological engineers in the tropics, helping break down organic matter and redistribute nutrients. The study notes that the contribution of invertebrates, such as termites, to forest litter decomposition may be underestimated due to the current regional sampling bias. It emphasises the need to integrate invertebrate functions into earth system models, given their significant contribution to global forest litter decomposition.

This research, published in Ecology Letters, with Xiaoyi Zeng as the first author, underscores the importance of conserving invertebrates in tropical and subtropical regions, especially in the face of widespread environmental change. It also highlights the need for extensive and standardised data collection to develop a global database of soil biodiversity and improve the predictive power of earth system models.